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SLSO’s Peer to Peer Program Builds Community Through Music

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

By Eric Dundon

Growing up, Madisynn Beckhum-Herron’s home was filled with music. She watched her parents play string instruments; her mother played violin while her father played the double bass. As her interest in the arts grew, Madisynn selected another member of the string family as she began her musical journey in fourth grade.

Now 15 years old, Madisynn plays cello in the Hazelwood West High School orchestra in north St. Louis County.

A cellist for five years, Madisynn’s skills have largely been shaped by her school’s music programs. Until November 2020, she never had a private music lesson. Then she joined the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Peer to Peer program.

St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra clarinetist Pema Childs, left, and Peer to Peer mentee Shelby Terrell, also a clarinetist, meet for the first time at an SLSO concert in May 2021. Pema and Shelby developed a friendship through the SLSO's Peer to Peer Program during weekly learning sessions since November 2020.

The SLSO began Peer to Peer six years ago as a small mentorship program for young string musicians throughout the St. Louis region. The program arose from conversations with participants in the SLSO IN UNISON Program about how the SLSO could support young musicians whose families may not have access to private musical instruction. IN UNISON, the SLSO’s flagship community program, connects area churches with the SLSO through music performances. Since its inception in 1992, IN UNISON has grown to include an acclaimed chorus dedicated to the performance and preservation of music with African and African American origins, as well as an academic arm that provides support to college students and young adults pursuing careers in music.

Three seasons after SLSO Peer to Peer launched, the SLSO partnered with Gateway Music Outreach—a community music education program serving north St. Louis County and St. Louis City—to align resources supporting young musicians and identify students for the program. In the early years of SLSO Peer to Peer, young musicians partnered with musicians of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra for biweekly peer coaching sessions at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, providing not only a path for long-term music development, but fostering a community of young musicians throughout the St. Louis region.

For much of the program’s existence, SLSO Peer to Peer served a small group of students: four pairs of mentors and mentees. But when the COVID-19 pandemic upended in-person lessons, the SLSO seized on the opportunity to significantly broaden the program, both digitally and in scope, circumnavigating transportation barriers many students face.

This season, 16 young musicians of color representing 12 area schools partnered with YO musicians for weekly virtual learning sessions from October to May. Each pair also worked with an SLSO musician each week, adding a layer of expertise to the weekly lessons. The program is free to all participating students.

Music Director Stéphane Denève meets with mentors and mentees of the SLSO's Peer to Peer Program following a concert at Powell Hall in April 2021.

For Madisynn, SLSO Peer to Peer offers professional-level instruction she’s never experienced before, which has brought her outside of her comfort zone.

“I’ve never had one-on-one training with someone, and for my first time doing private lessons with someone who plays cello as their career, it was really nerve-wracking. I didn’t know if I was good enough for that,” she said, “but there was no judgment. It’s a very accepting program.”

Since SLSO Peer to Peer expanded this season, weekly lessons have accelerated Madisynn’s progress.

James Czyzewski, an SLSO cellist who has worked with Madisynn weekly since November 2020, noticed as her technical skills improved, her confidence grew.

“Madisynn is thoughtful, serious, and very hard working,” he said. “She’s never had private lessons, so I’ve seen her become much more confident in how she plays the cello.”

Madisynn’s YO counterpart, Madeline Buchowski, has also noticed improvement in Madisynn’s skills.

“She has advanced so much,” Madeline said of Madisynn. “There’s a huge, huge difference.”

While Czyzewski is the primary instructor in the learning sessions, Madeline, who has had private cello lessons from a young age, provides support—taking notes, following up with Madisynn throughout the week, and sharing tips and tricks along the way. Throughout the program, the trio have developed a strong rapport.

“Us three, we have a dynamic that’s very comfortable and relaxed,” Madeline said.

While the most tangible benefit of SLSO Peer to Peer is the music instruction that has helped Madisynn advance in her musical journey, all three said there are many more positive outcomes.

“The most concrete benefit is providing access to high-level music instruction to people who don’t have access to individual instruction,” Czyzewski said. “But I’ve noticed with Madisynn that she’s learning to be a cello student as much as learning to play the cello. Building relationships and learning how to work with and learn from others has a lot of carry-over in life.”

Madeline said that as a YO counterpart, she’s learned how to be a better mentor and teacher and developed her ability to work with other people.

Malena Smith coordinates the SLSO Peer to Peer Program and has spearheaded the significant expansion this season alongside Maureen Byrne, SLSO Associate Vice President of Education and Community Partnerships, thanks to a generous gift from SLSO Trustee and former YO parents Andrew and Lori O'Brien. Aside from quadrupling the number of students served, increasing lessons to weekly sessions, and integrating SLSO musicians fully in the program, SLSO Peer to Peer now includes wind and percussion musicians and has expanded its geographic footprint, with participating students from Hazelwood, Jennings, University City, Webster Groves, Ferguson-Florissant, Pattonville, St. Louis City, Normandy, and Orchard Farms. All students in the expanded SLSO Peer to Peer were nominated for participation by Gateway Music Outreach and some received additional recommendation from their school band or orchestra teachers.

The other major change this year is the refocused mission of the program. Each student now works toward an audition goal appropriate for their skill level. Some will work toward auditioning for the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra or another extracurricular student training ensemble, while others will prepare a solo piece to perform in front a panel of adjudicators, including SLSO Concertmaster David Halen. In finessing the program’s mission, SLSO Peer to Peer strives to foster long-term interest in music studies for each youth participant.

That refocused mission aims to establish a clear and progressive structure for musician development, build student confidence with their instruments, and inspire students to remain involved with their school music programs. As a byproduct, SLSO Peer to Peer contributes to the creation of a pipeline for Brown and Black musicians to the orchestra industry, disrupting a deep-seated lack of diversity in youth and professional orchestras.

“Across the country, we see a lack of diversity in professional orchestras,” Smith, who is Black, said. “[Increasing diversity] won’t be done overnight, but at the SLSO, we’ve asked what we can do that can grow over years, so we can start to see the diversity that is currently missing.”

A New York Times report indicates that orchestras are among the least racially diverse institutions, “especially in regard to Black and Latino artists. In a 2014 study, only 1.8 percent of the players in top ensembles were Black; just 2.5 percent were Latino.”

“One year, one program isn’t going to close the gap,” Smith said. “But if we can simply give Brown and Black students that access and that opportunity they otherwise might not have, we can start to close that gap.”

For SLSO Peer to Peer, that means meeting students where they are in their abilities and tailoring a program that suits their individual needs, while providing a space to create a supportive, engaged music community.

“The SLSO Peer to Peer program is not just about helping a student improve,” said SLSO violinist Dana Myers, who mentors two young violinists. “It’s also about building relationships, connecting, and trusting in the process.”

For Madisynn, the program has helped open her eyes to her broadening musical horizons. She now sees herself auditioning for a community music ensemble, a step she felt too timid to take before.

“I’m really grateful,” she said. “I’ve improved so much.”


Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Manager.


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